Novice handicappers assume that the longer the race, the better the chances for the winner to come from behind. Not true, especially in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.
Four years ago, Jazil took the Triple Crown finale by rallying from last after a quarter-mile, which hadn't happened since High Echelon did it in 1970. Front-runners, pace pressers and midpack types win the Belmont, so deep closer Ice Box, the 3-1 morning-line favorite, might not be a good bet Saturday.
There's not much speed in the 142nd "Test of the Champion," and Preakness runner-up First Dude is likely to set the fractions. "The press keeps telling us we'll be on a solo lead," trainer Dale Romans said, "and I hope they're right. But there's usually someone who will go out with you."
That someone could be Game On Dude. His pace figures compare favorably with First Dude's, and a 6-furlong workout in 1:12.40 Monday at Santa Anita sharpened the California Dude's speed.
"Yep, he's alive," said Bob Baffert, a speed-oriented guy. I doubt if he'll tell Martin Garcia to let First Dude dictate the fractions. Game On Dude (post 8) might force Ramon Dominguez to go hard from post 11.
As Ike Thrash, co-owner of long shot Dave in Dixie, said: "Every time there's a Triple Crown race and people say there's no pace, someone always loses their mind and goes out there."
So will it be a case of dueling Dudes?
Romans said he doesn't think First Dude needs to be in front. "He doesn't mind sitting off horses," he said. "It just depends on how the race sets up, and we'll pretty much leave that to Ramon."
First Dude is big and game with a long stride but is only 1-for-7 lifetime. He also had a taxing effort in the Preakness and lost ground in the stretch for the fourth consecutive time. If he doesn't get loose in front, that probably will happen again. "As long as he's relaxed and comfortable," Romans said, "I'll be fine with that."
Chances are First Dude will have to work early, and his odds will be around 4-1, not the 23-1 they were in Baltimore.
"I think Dale's horse is going to take a lot of action at the windows," Nick Zito said. So will his colts, Ice Box and Fly Down, the 9-2 third choice on the morning line.
Although Ice Box is the field's only Grade I winner and could have won the Kentucky Derby with a clean trip, Fly Down appears better suited to the Belmont. He has beaten First Dude twice and is the only one of the 12 with a victory at Belmont Park. That 6-length runaway on May 8 in the 1 1/8-mile Dwyer jumps out at you.
Not only did Fly Down launch a powerful, four-wide rally on the far turn, he also accelerated late and went his final furlong in a quick 12 1/5 seconds for Jose Lezcano. Fly Down galloped out strongly, suggesting that the extra distance will be no problem.
John Velazquez will be on Fly Down because Lezcano stayed with Ice Box. Johnny V. took the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches, and it would be no surprise if he won his second Saturday. Expect him to sit in midpack with Fly Down and try to produce a Dwyer replay.
"I'll try to be patient with him and hopefully have something left for the stretch," Velazquez said. "I think we've got a pretty good chance."
So do I.